Review: The Cabinet of Curiosities

The Cabinet of Curiosities

by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

review by Talia E. Myres

In modern-day lower Manhattan, an abandoned tenement is being torn down to make way for luxury condominiums and office space. But when a construction crew breaks into a cavern beneath the remains of a 19th century building, they make a gruesome discovery. Contained within the small alcoves lining the basement-like area are the murdered remains of 36 people disposed of in the most hideous of fashions by an apparent century-old serial killer.

Shortly after this discovery, enigmatic FBI agent Pendergast visits Nora Kelly, a forensic archaeologist for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. A hesitant accomplice, Nora soon finds herself caught up in a murder investigation that will take them across 19th century and modern-day New York City, to former tenement houses, old Chinatown brownstones and finally to a large mansion once owned by a 19th century doctor who figures prominently in their search. It’s this mysterious doctor, whose morbid fascination with the prolonging of life through hideous medical experiments conducted on living humans, which captures Special Agent Pendergast’s attention and solidifies his determination to unmask the historic serial killer.

But just as the pair seems to draw close to solving the 100-year-old killings, new murders begin popping up in New York City–ones that eerily echo the methodical and surgically precise killings perpetuated a century ago. Did the mysterious doctor find a way to perpetuate life through his long-dead victims? If so, is he once again in need of victims to continue? Or, has a new killer with the same chilling methods emerged in New York City? Pendergast and Nora have to find out quickly before history repeats itself!

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How do you write a review of an audio book? With an episode synopsis or review, the writer goes with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the plot and what’s being discussed. But when you’re talking about a book, you don’t want to give anything away-especially when it’s a murder mystery! The best way, one must suppose, is to talk about the narrator and their ability to communicate the narrative to the listener and more importantly, to take a cast of characters from tangible paper, create them–each in their own unique and easily identifiable voice, and finally present them to the reader. The trick in all of this is to make the reader believe they’re listening to an ensemble cast and not just one person. René does this flawlessly, and I’m not just saying that because I like the guy. There are a lot of actors and actresses out there who are top notch on film but can’t read an audio book to save their lives. You don’t get that with René. What you do get is an audio experience that makes you forget that you’re listening to a book and instead allows you to watch it transpire like a film as you see it unfold inside your head. When you consider the technicalities involved in creating an ensemble cast from one individual, it becomes a pretty impressive feat.

Listening to The Cabinet of Curiosities, written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, you’re treated to four main characters and probably about 20 other side characters that are voiced in the book. Of the four main characters, there’s the challenge of creating a female lead and then creating three distinct voices for the male leads. It wouldn’t do to have two male characters talking to one another and the reader unable to discern who is saying what. But with René, there’s always a clear distinction for each character. Special Agent Pendergast has a pronounced Southern accent that is always spoken in the softest of voices, which is often referred to as mellifluous; and indeed, when Pendergast is speaking, it is with the most dulcet and smooth-flowing tones. William Smithback, an up-and-coming reporter trying to make a name for himself, comes across as exactly that. The often eager and overconfident lilt to his voice provides the reader with plenty of proof that this character who thinks he has all the answers still has a lot to learn before he can make the switch from The New York Post to The New York Times. And the bad guy, who I’m not going to give away, definitely comes across as a very twisted, methodical, and powerful character. The chilling delivery of his eerie dialogue and decided lack of human compassion toward his victims as they wait to be used for his diabolical and personal gain is simply macabre.

René has commented that creating a female character’s voice isn’t so much about sounding like an actual woman as it is about affecting a certain tone. It’s hard to explain, but when you listen to Nora Kelly speak, you can definitely tell that she’s a woman. Even though Pendergast speaks in the softest and most genteel tones, there is no doubt that a man is speaking. When Nora speaks, René affects a higher pitch for her dialogue and implements a softer tone. The decidedly feminine-tinted voice is credible and effective in imparting a sense of believability of the character to the listener.

Listening to René deliver Pendergast’s lines as a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who speaks far less forcefully than his male counterparts, and then suddenly switch to Nora, an independent, modern female scientist who comes across as such, is quite impressive.

As the dialogue goes back and forth for minutes at a time, never once does the listener have any trouble discerning whether it’s Pendergast or Nora speaking. It’s a testament to his strong acting chops that René is able to stay “in character” as the discourse between the two unfolds.

It’s important to note that between the dialogue, there’s a substantial amount of narrative that propels the story. It’s interesting to listen to René’s voice, as opposed to those he’s created for the characters, because even though he’s speaking out of character, the narrative voice is still one that’s been created for the book and is, in my opinion, decidedly different from his regular speaking voice. The lower modulation is crucial in allowing the listener to be drawn deeper into the story, and it almost gives them the sense that they’re being told this additional information in a personal, one-on-one setting, allowing them a slice of ownership in this chilling tale. It’s an astonishingly effective tool.

Having primarily listened to René’s work on Star Trek audio books before The Cabinet of Curiosities, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I branched out from the sci-fi genre, but this audio book was a delightful “read.” With any Star Trek or other audio books based on movies or television, the narrator already has a basis for the characters. They’re not so much creating the voices as they are re-creating or capturing the idiosyncrasies that have already been established on film. But with this audio book, René gave a tangible voice to so many characters, most notably Special Agent Pendergast.

If, after listening, you’re intrigued by the FBI agent, you’re in luck. There are six more books detailing his travels across the world, all delivered in high-caliber performances by René.